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Behind the Headlines: North’s Testimony Links Israel to Contra Funds, but Not Completely

For those who had predicted that the Congressional investigation into the Iran-Contra affair would show Israeli complicity in the diversion of funds from the sale of arms to Iran to the Contras, the six days of testimony by Lt. Col. Oliver North must have been a disappointment.

But the former National Security Council aide, who completed his testimony before the select Senate-House Committee Tuesday, did not take Israel completely off the hook as he described two incidents in Israel’s involvement in the affair.

The first was that Amiram Nir, the counter–terrorism advisor to the Israeli Premier, proposed to North that profits from the arms sale be used to pay for the United States resupply of Israel with the 503 TOW anti-tank missiles that Israel sold Iran in 1985 and for “supporting other activities.”

This occurred at a meeting in Washington in late December 1985 or early January 1986, at which Nir urged continuation of the Iranian initiative, according to North. He said Israel was concerned that the U.S. replenish its TOW stockpile and had believed, apparently mistakenly, that the U.S. would do it free of charge.

SAID GHORBANIFAR SUGGESTED CONTRAS

The second incident described by North took place at a meeting in Europe in January 1986, between North, Nir and Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian arms dealer, whom Israel and then the U.S. had used as the middleman for the sale of arms to Iran.

During a meeting, North said Ghorbanifar took him into the bathroom and proposed the diversion of the arms profits for the Contras.

North said the late William Casey, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told him that the CIA believed Ghorbanifar was an Israeli intelligence agent. North said he believed at the time that Ghorbanifar made the proposal “with the full knowledge and acquiesence of the Israeli intelligence service, if not the Israeli government.”

However, North also testified that as the NSC official responsible for the U.S. efforts against terrorism, he had expressed reluctance at the meeting in Europe to supplying Iran with arms, and Ghorbanifar had pulled him aside to make several suggestions aimed at changing his mind.

When the diversion to the Contras was suggested, for the first time “the whole idea was made more palatable,” North testified. “I must confess to you that I thought using the Ayatollah Khomeini’s money to support the Nicaraguan resistance was a right idea.”

North also noted that Ghorbanifar was well informed and knew of his close involvement with the Contras.

CONSISTENT ISRAELI DENIALS

The Israeli government has consistently denied any connection with the diversion of the arms profits to the Contras. The government has relied for this denial on Nir, who has continued as advisor to Premier Yitzhak Shamir after first being appointed to the post by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres when he was Premier. After North’s July 8 testimony about Nir, there were reports, later denied, that Nir had been removed from responsibilities for counter-terrorism, though not fired. The next day North said if this had happened to Nir, with whom he said he had a “close relationship,” then “I sadly regret it. He is a brave man who served his country well, and I believe tried to help us in trying to carry out our policies.”

North and earlier witnesses testified that it was Israel that first proposed to the U.S. opening an initiative to Iran. The Israel government has not denied this, but instead has strongly defended the effort to make contacts with the more moderate elements in Iran, as did North in his testimony before the committee.

“I’ve no regret as an Israeli about it,” Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said July I during a breakfast meeting with reporters, sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He stressed that it was necessary to establish such contacts to pave the way for relations when Khomeini no longer rules Iran.

In his testimony, North also stressed that while Israel and the U.S. may have different reasons for the initiative on Iran, there was a “basic fundamental agreement” about the contacts. “I believe that there was sufficient congruence between Israeli objectives and American objectives that made this project worthwhile,” North said.

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